When we first started the church, we had to grapple with the issue of the church’s and the para-church’s role on campus. Since we were a fully functioning church with a focus on the campus, we ran into some problems with the para-church. Maybe I should say it was more of a conflict of interest. Why? Because in order to be a fully functioning church that is focused on the campus, we could not just have Sunday Celebrations for students. We were committed to living out the 5 E’s (Exaltation, Evangelism, Edification, Education and Extension) in our context. Simply put, we needed to do small groups, discipleship, large group meetings, evangelism and a lot of the other things that the para-church was already doing in order for us to be the local church and to be faithful to our calling.
Some people had problems with this, or shall I say “us.” The logic for some people was expressed in a form of a question – “why can’t people do both?” I think the best way to answer this is to approach it from 3 different angles (past, present and future).
First of all, I will approach it from a historical perspective. When I think about the para-church movement on college campuses, we can point back to the start of universities here in the United States. There were various campus groups all throughout history that formed both informally and formally around a specific purpose. There were some that formed around the purpose of prayer. Some were focused more on missions and world evangelization. Regardless, they were a key part of the spiritual life on the campus. Then in the mid-20th century some of the more notable para-church groups developed in the midst of increased student population after WWII. As more students were coming back or going to college, many of the local churches were not ready or equipped to minister to the needs of the students. Therefore, this created a void in the hearts of the students as there was an increasing hunger for spiritual things.
Secondly, I want to look at this issue from the trends that I am seeing around the world today. For some reason God is bringing forth an awakening within the Church. The churches in this post-modern world are seeing things a bit differently than the churches of our parents’ generation. In our parents’ generation it was more about the “attraction” model (come to us), while in our generation it is more about the missional model (we will go to you). This has caused our generation to re-think about ecclesiology and what it means to be the Church. On one hand, we are seeing a lot more “grassroots” movements starting but also we are seeing more people putting an emphasis on the role of the local church.
With these two perspectives, we can conclude that God is “re-commissioning” the local church to play a role in engaging the college campuses. Even here at the University of Michigan campus, I am noticing two trends over the last 10 years. First, there have been more churches being planted right on campus to fully engage the students. I am also seeing this in our community of churches in Acts Ministries International – most of our churches are on or near a college campus. Also, some of the current local churches who have solely relied upon the para-churches to minister to their students are now starting up their own church college ministry.
So now, the question is – “what is the role of the college para-church in our generation?”
Lastly, I want to approach this issue of the church and the para-church’s role from the eternal perspective. At the end of the day, when everything is all said and done, whether a person comes to Christ through the para-church or the local church, does it really matter? As long as Christ is preached, we can all rejoice (Php 1:18). But the tension will always be there.
How does a person who is involved in both the para-church and the local church choose between events hosted by the para-church and the local church on the same day? Hmm… that is a quandary. If they choose the para-church, the community that they have in the local church might feel discouraged. If they choose the local church over the para-church, then the community that they have in the para-church might feel discouraged.
Is there any easy solution or answer?
Well, some people have no problem with living in the tension, which is fine – more power to them. But for the rest of us, it comes down to dealing with a tough decision, which many people have done. They either choose the local church and be fully “in” or they choose the para-church and then find a church that does not have a college ministry and is depending on a para-church to partner together with.
In the past 12 years of HMCC, we have had people make the hard choice and jump all in; and we have also had people that found another church.